Using the Second Person in Essays: You Shouldn’t Do That

Your teacher or professor may have said not to write in the second person. They may have forgotten to mention it. Either way, I’m telling you that you should not write a formal essay in the second person. I feel very strongly about this, but I guarantee that I do not feel as strongly about it as your teacher or professor will if you turn in an essay written in the second person.


Nosferatu was actually a super-nice guy until he read an essay that contained second person pronouns.

What is the second person?

It’s when the writer uses a second person pronoun, specifically you or yours, to address the reader.  Therefore, when I wrote my first paragraph to this post, I was writing using second person pronouns.

You’re probably asking yourself, “Why, Banger, must we not do this?”

There are a few reasons:
  • First, it lends itself to informality. This site is written in an informal tone, and while that is fine for something like this, for a formal essay you need to maintain an appropriate tone throughout your work.
  • Second, it can weaken your argument, because it sounds like you are telling your reader what to think, rather than informing them or persuading them.
  • Third, stylistically, I tell my students not to talk about their essay in their essay. Do not say, “In my essay, I will show you why left-handed cats are superior to butterflies.” No no, do not do that. Instead, this is one time when the old saw of “Show; don’t tell” is absolutely correct. Don’t tell us what you’re going to show us, but instead get right in there, get your hands dirty, and lay out a compelling argument for us to assess.
Are there times when you can use the second person?

Absolutely. It can be an effective mechanism in creative writing. It’s good if you’re giving instructions. It’s handy if you are cultivating a casual connection with the reader. Otherwise, no. Just don’t do it.

What am I supposed to do instead?

That’s where phrasing* comes into play. Rather than saying, “In my essay, I will show you why left-handed laser cats are superior to butterflies,” you might say the following in a research essay, “Studies have demonstrated that left-handed laser cats are superior to butterflies in every conceivable manner.” Or, if you are writing an opinion essay, you could say, “It is my firm opinion that left-handed laser cats are substantively superior to butterflies for a variety of reasons.” In both cases you’re avoiding the second person, you’re setting the tone of your essay (research v. opinion), and you’re setting up for a thesis statement that left-handed laser cats are the most fab things going, whereas butterflies are meh. Honest.


Left-Handed LaserCat: Now Fully Charged and Even More Awesome than Butterflies


* Are we still doing that?


There, They’re, Their

Everyone makes mistakes with these homonyms sometimes. Even an experienced writer will look at the page and wince, having spotted they fumbled one of these doozies. If you’re not sure of which one to use in which scenario, however, it’s good to brush up.

The easiest one to remember is they’re. The reason it’s easy? It has an apostrophe, because it is a contraction.

A contraction is when two words are jammed together, and all the unnecessary letters squirt out the top in an apostrophe. In this case, the two words that got jammed together were they and are. 

they are -> theyare -> theyre. The a of they are was squished into an apostrophe.

The other two, there and their, may seem harder to remember at first. However, there’s a trick to remembering them:

Ask yourself a question: Where is it? There it is. Where and there are only a letter apart in spelling. They go together! Yay!

So, how about their? How should we remember that one?



So, this is awkward, but there isn’t a good way that I know of to remember it–other than through process of elimination. If they’re is a contraction of they are (and remember, in formal writing you’d avoid contractions and write out “they are” anyway), and if there goes with where, then their is just going to hang out by itself.

To recap:

They’re: short for they are. “They’re going to the mall.”

There: goes with where. “Where are they going? There, to the mall?”

Their: the leftover one: “Are they taking you? No? It’s their loss.”

Helpful? Anyone have a good way to remember their?

MLA Running Headers and Block Headers

MLA formatted running headers and block headers may seem tricky sometimes, but they’re not nearly as difficult as you might think. The big challenge is knowing what belongs in each, and how the information should be arranged.

MLA Formatted Running Header:

An MLA formatted running header appears in the top right hand corner of every page, within Word’s predefined header space. (If you use another program such as Scrivener or Pages, the concepts are the same, but the execution is slightly different. We’ll address them another time.)

What information belongs in an MLA formatted running header? Two things: your last name, and the page number. That’s it. This only seems a little tricky because these items go in the header space of your document and because you want to use automatic page numbering. Why? This is to ensure that your name is added to every page, and the page number automatically changes on every page, too.

This is what a properly formatted running header looks like in MLA:

MLA Running Header

But Banger, how do you put that there?

Actually, it’s not that hard. First, move your mouse over the header area, which is just below the top of the paper. Your pointer won’t change–you have to trust the Force that it’s there. Then double click, and it should look like below:

Enter the Header

Now you’re in the header space. Congratulations! Once you’re there, on a PC, hit ctrl-r. On a Mac, hit command-r. That will right-justify your text. Type your last name to see it in position.

Then, you’ll need to insert a page number. Don’t just type one–if you do, it won’t change on every page! Instead, click on Insert, then Page Numbers:

Inserting the Page NumberOnce you do so, you’ll see this:

Insert Page Number 2

Click on OK, and it will insert a page number.

Now all you need to do is exit the header space, either by double clicking in the regular (lower) part of the paper, or by clicking on Close:

Close Header

That’s all it takes to make an MLA formatted running header!

Making an MLA formatted block header is even easier. Because the block header only goes on the first page of your document, you don’t need to type it in the header space. Instead, start on the first line of your paper, and type the following information:

Your Name

Professor’s Name

Course Name


That’s all there is to it. However, pay attention to that date format. In DD Month YYYY format, today’s date (Friday, April 17, 2015) would be 17 April 2015. No commas, and in that order. And yes, it needs to be double-spaced, and no, you do not need any additional lines between that and the title of your paper.

Need to know how to double-space a paper? We’ll cover that shortly.



Automating Paragraph and Hanging Indentations Using Word’s Ruler

If you’re writing papers, it’s likely you need to know how to do a first line indent for every new paragraph. If you’re citing papers, you’ll need to know how to do what’s called a hanging indent.

Microsoft Office’s Word gives us easy ways to both indent and hanging indent our work. But what’s the difference between the two?

A first line indent in a paragraph is exactly that–when you indent the first line of each paragraph, and the first line only, by 1/2″. There are two good ways to accomplish this, and one bad way. A hanging indent occurs when the first line is flush left, and all subsequent lines are indented 1/2″. (Trust me, this will make sense soon. I brought visual aids.)

The easiest way to create a first line indent is to, drumroll please, hit the tab key! Woo, tab key! Once, just once, mind you, as Word’s default is that each time you hit it you’ll indent another 1/2″.

If you do that, you may notice that on the next paragraph, Word has indented for you. Yay Word; thanks!

Word has tried to become more clever about anticipating your needs, so it will automatically set your paragraph first line indent to 1/2″ after you do it once, manually. However, you can also set your paragraph first line indent in the same way Word will, by using the margin and indent sliders on the ruler.

The what? The ruler. Here–let me show you how to turn it on for a Mac:

Word Ruler

Go to View, look down the list of options, and put a check mark next to Ruler. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to try an indent. Open up a blank Word document. Go ahead; I’ll wait.

Got one? Good. Now, I want you to look at your ruler. There are weird little blue tabby-looking things on the top and bottom of the ruler, both on the left and the right. These tabs are the indent markers, and correspond roughly to the manual tab stops that used to be on typewriters. They function in a similar fashion here, in that you can click and drag on them and move them to where you want the indent in your document.

Paragraph indentIn this document, I have clicked and dragged the top indent marker only, 1/2″ in, and then begun typing. This created a first line indent. My paragraph is automatically indented, and I do not have to worry about indenting any subsequent paragraphs. Which is handy when you’re pulling an all-nighter and are afraid you may actually forget how to breathe at some point.

Please note: I only moved the top indent marker. If I moved the bottom indent marker too, something different would occur…

…and that something is a hanging indent! Let’s say I’m typing MLA formatted citations. These citations need to have a 1/2″ hanging indent. This is where you’ll really want to use the indent markers, because there is no nice way to do this manually using the tab key. You can do it, but it gets ugly, and then people cry, and it’s not fun. Try it my way, instead. Open up another blank document, and touching only the pointy part of the bottom indent marker, slowly move it 1/2″ over until it looks like below, then type:

Hanging Indent

Okay, at this point, one of a two things has probably happened:

  • Both indent markers moved over even though you didn’t want them to, and you want to set fire to everything with your mind, or;
  • Everything is perfect and you think that I’m a genius.

If the first thing occurred, it’s because your mouse was over the little blobby thing that the bottom pointy blue indent marker is sitting on, and you dragged that by accident. Please, don’t feel bad–it’s hard to grab the right part of the hanging indent marker. That’s why I made such a big, italicized deal about where to click. Drag it back over to where it started, and try again.

If the second thing occurred, you GO, you little hanging-indent smarty-pants, you!

Some handy tips:
  • You can apply automatic indenting to material that has already been typed. Highlight the text you want to apply the changes to, then scootch the indent markers around to your liking.
  • Can’t remember which indent marker moves the first line indent and which moves the hanging indent settings? Easy: the one on top of the ruler moves the top (first line) of the paragraph. The one on the bottom of the ruler moves the bottom lines of the paragraph.
Wait, you said there was a bad way of indenting. What was that?

Once upon a time, typewriters had things called non-proportional fonts. Every keystroke took up the same amount of space, so type actually looked, well, a little nasty sometimes. (That’s where the that whole “put two spaces after a period” came from–it was for weirdly spaced fonts.) Now, however, we have lovely fonts that are proportional, meaning that each letter takes up the amount of space it needs to look nice next to the letters around it. That’s actually very clever, but it means that the space key no longer makes a space of a set size. Instead, it makes spaces the size needed to look nice next to the next letters. Therefore, you cannot make a nice, even indent by using the space key. It will change every single time, and look “ragged.” So don’t do it–if you want to type your indents, hit the tab key once–never space.


Contractions–When Words Collide


Don’t what? Don’t worry about contractions and getting them right–it’s easier than you think.

There are some very simple rules about figuring out where the apostrophe goes in a contraction. Even better, however, is that you don’t need to know the rules when you’re writing an essay.

Wait, what? No rules in an essay?

No, not exactly–no contractions. Do not use contractions when you’re writing a formal essay. Instead, write the full words out, rather than their contractions. Easy peasy.

However, if you’re not writing a formal essay and you just want to know where to put the apostrophe, here’s the deal:

A contraction is two words squishing together. Take, for example, “don’t.” “Don’t” is “do” and “not” squished together so hard that the o in “do not” squirted out the top of the word in an apostrophe.

Do not. Donot. Dont. See? It’s the O squirting out the top because it got squished so hard.

Can not. Cannot. Cant.

Uh, hold on. Cannot loses two letters–cannot -> cannot -> cant. Where did that missing  N go?

Look, I’m going to be honest with you. We’re really only marking where vowels were lost with this whole apostrophe thing:

Shall not -> shant.
Will not -> wont.
Have not -> havent.
Has not -> hasnt.

And so on. To mark where the vowel was, we use the squishy apostrophe.

You are -> youre.
We are -> were.
They are -> theyre.

See? It works on the missing a, too.

Need more examples?

I am -> Im
I will -> Ill
I would -> Id
I have -> Ive
I had -> Id

Now, there are some odd contractions that don’t follow this rule. This is English, so a few weird things showing up is obligatory. But for the most part, that rule of thumb works.

As for the weird ones, they’re things like:

of -> o
of the clock -> oclock
madam -> maam
it was -> twas (although that one, the vowel squirted out again!)

These tend to be older terms, and through long use in speech they were compressed in this way.

Need more examples? Don’t be afraid to comment and ask!